A Unique Thanksgiving Tradition
Everyone has their Thanksgiving traditions. Dinner with the family, of course, but maybe also going to the Macy’s parade, or listening to Alice’s Restaurant, or watching “Turkey’s Away” from WKRP in Cincinnati. For us, it’s Laurel & Hardy’s 1933 classic March of the Wooden Soldiers and, once the big meal is digested, a trip to Wall Stadium Speedway for the annual Turkey Derby.
The Turkey Derby began in 1974 as what we thought at the time was a crazy idea: Outdoor auto racing in New Jersey in late November. Cold weather is to be expected, and snow is not out of the question. But that first Turkey Derby was a hit, and 2018 brought the 45th annual edition, an event that has grown from a one-day stock-car racing extravaganza to a three-day smorgasbord of competition. It has been a Thanksgiving weekend habit for us for since Jimmy Carter resided in the White House.
Wall Stadium’s management is not indifferent to the potential for – actually, the high likelihood of – cold weather conditions, and so among the preparations is the positioning of a large heated tent on the spectator midway behind the bleachers, into which anyone can go to warm up if they so choose. Day One of this year’s Derby brought record cold temperatures, so the tent was surely appreciated, and while Days Two and Three were run under more moderate conditions, we admit even we took to the tent for a respite on Saturday.
Add to this a trio of refreshment stands offering food and beverage that is both good and warming, and you can begin to understand why fans don’t mind the weather and come out in droves. And they have learned to come out early because the Turkey Derby is the track’s biggest event of the year and the parking lot fills up fast. Buses run between the track gate and a nearby corporate airport to handle overflow parking.
Of the more than a half-dozen racing divisions that participate, NASCAR-style pavement Modifieds are the headliners. This year’s race was a 150-lap contest on Saturday that produced an unexpected winner and plenty of contentious race action to keep the fans happy. Drivers Jimmy Blewett and Matt Hirschman, both prior Turkey Derby winners and each at the top of their game, tangled early and often, spoiling either’s chance of winning and opening the door for others to make hay.
TQ Midget race winner Buddy Sload got the festivities off on the right foot when he stopped his car short of the track’s Victory Lane. Sload explained that he left Victory Lane open “for Greg Hodnett.” Hodnett was a highly-respected racer who lost his life earlier in the year. Races are a ferociously competitive bunch, but they are also a brotherhood.
Perhaps less pleasing to the fans were the damp conditions that moved in late in the day and caused the main event for the Legends cars to be cut short and which postponed the SK Modified 100-lap race to Sunday.
Wall Stadium, built in 1949, is a track that counts among its past race winners Bobby Allison, Mario Andretti, Ray Evernham, and Martin Truex Jr. In an era when short-track racing is imperiled across the country, success stories are nice to see, and the annual Turkey Derby is a success story. But Wall Stadium’s future is not guaranteed; the track is owned by a business entity that leases it to the current operator, and renewal of that lease after 2019 is not a sure thing. But what is a sure thing is a good time at the races, so as long as the track continues to operate, we’ll continue to attend.